Mediterranean Diet: It May Not Be What You Think

By: Meri Raffetto

The Mediterranean Diet continues to make headlines with more and more studies showing a positive effect on heart health not to mention other areas of health and longevity. While the research supports using this diet is good for your health, how do you know what to eat? The sad truth is while you begin to search online you’re going to run into some misinformation. From media to health professionals and even researchers the information provided about the Mediterranean diet is often weak or just plain wrong.

Before you go to Costco and fill your grocery cart with a 10-pound bag of spaghetti and two pounds of cheese keep reading to assure you’re actually following a Mediterranean Diet plan the correct way. Otherwise, you likely won’t achieve the same health benefits you’re looking for.

What it is not…

Butter and rich cooking methods

Because France borders the Mediterranean Sea many people believe the classic cooking style that includes heavy use of butter and other fats is what this diet is all about. While it is an interesting topic and France does indeed border the Mediterranean Sea, French cooking is not part of what is considered a Mediterranean diet. Instead this mystery of French cooking in regard to health is called the French Paradox. The Mediterranean Diet is based on the diet practices of those who lived specifically in Crete, Greece and rural Southern Italy in the 1960s. You’ll find heavy use of olive oil…not so much butter.

Pasta, pasta, pasta

food-plate-rucola-saladThe first thing most people think of with a Mediterranean diet is pasta. Italians certainly do eat pasta, it is considered the jewel of Italian cuisine but not in the way that Americans eat pasta. In the States it’s common to fill a dinner plate with several cups of soft noodles resulting in high calories and blood sugar spikes. When your blood sugar is elevated from overeating and consuming high glycemic foods on a regular basis, it can trigger an inflammatory response, which is associated with chronic disease like heart disease. Those blood sugar spikes can also lead some people, especially those with endocrine issues like Type 2 Diabetes, to store more calories as fat.

In Italy, pasta is served as a side dish with a half cup to one-cup serving size and cooked al dente. While al dente pasta (slightly firm) is the way pasta is supposed to be eaten it also releases less starch resulting in a lower glycemic index (how quickly your blood sugar rises after consuming carbohydrates). Smaller portion size plus al dente pasta means a lower blood sugar spike.

Using vegetable oils

I have seen this multiple times in the media and to my surprise in a recent study. Vegetable oils and margarine were not used in the Mediterranean diet, just extra virgin olive oil. It’s important to know since olive oil, high in monounsaturated fat, offers specific health benefits that vegetable oils do not, which are mostly high in polyunsaturated fat. Olive oil was used for all purposes including salad dressing, cooking and even desserts. The smoke point for a quality olive oil is 365 to 400 degrees making it suitable for most cooking.

What the Mediterranean Diet is…

  • Seafood several times a week, including shellfish and small fatty fish like anchovies and sardines
  • A glass of red wine with a meal (1 to 2 glasses folks, not the whole bottle)
  • 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables a day; they are the star of the Mediterranean plate
  • Choosing foods that are in season
  • Some vegetarian meals are common
  • Meat is a side dish with 2 to 3 ounce serving sizes. Beef is consumed a couple times a month
  • Lentils and beans several times a week
  • Extra virgin olive oil is the primary source of fat (you can use a high quality olive oil up to 400 degrees)
  • Nuts several times a week
  • Small portion sizes of pasta cooked al dente
  • Avoid processed foods
  • Moderate consumption of dairy, which include foods like Greek yogurt and Parmesan or Feta cheese. Think grated Parmesan on a pasta dish vs. something like mac and cheese
  • Lunch is the biggest meal of the day

For example, a giant plate of spaghetti and meatballs is a no or at least limit to once in awhile.

A plate with ½ cup al dente spaghetti, 2 ounces of meatballs, sliced tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and vinegar and a side of savory roasted vegetables is a yes.

With a Mediterranean plate you’ll eat more food with lots of flavor and textures for less calories, higher fiber, healthier fats and more nutrients. Follow the guidelines above and enjoy tasty health promoting foods as your daily plan.


Meri Raffetto is a Registered Dietitian and founder of Real Living Nutrition Services, an online weight loss and wellness program inspired by the Mediterranean Diet. She’s the author of the Mediterranean Diet Cookbook for Dummies, the Glycemic Index Cookbook for Dummies and Glycemic Index Diet for Dummies. She has been active in the field of food and nutrition for over 20 years as a clinical dietitian, food and nutrition consultant, recipe developer and writer. She’s developed employee wellness programs for hospitals and private companies specializing in cost effective solutions for nutrition education. To learn more visit Real Living Nutrition Services or follow on twitter @realliving2


  1. Zak HinesJuly 28, 2015

    Interesting post! While I’ve personally never embarked on the path of going on a diet (at 5 ft 8 and 135 lbs, I just never thought I needed to), I’ve seen others use them to great success. Will definitely take the time to look more at the Mediterranean diet. It sounds really interesting!

  2. […] eat a Mediterranean diet, but light on the sardines; Drink lots of water and eat fruits with citrate and potassium (lemons […]

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